Friday, May 11, 2018

SIFA 2018 :: ‘TAHA’

The blurb for the one-hour monologue that was ‘TAHA’ promised to be uncomfortable. But it was high on my to-watch list at SIFA 2018. The stage held only the performer, and a bench. The actor was wonderful, and contributed greatly to making the play even more unsettling than it already was. What an intense and brilliant show. It’s very hard not to discuss politics in such a play. So it’s important with whom you watch it with, and how you’d like to talk about it after.

In an interview with The Straits Times, ‘One-man play on the pain of Palestinians’ published on May 1 2018, playwright and actor Amer Hlehel (also co-founder of ShiberHur Theatre Company) shared his thoughts about the poet and the role,

Taha's poetry spoke about the pain and the loss of the Palestinian people through his human, personal story, writing in a deep, tender way without being political, says Hlehel, 38, over the telephone from his home in Haifa.  "You can identify with his poetry without being Palestinian. You just have to be human." 
The character he plays onstage is a mix of the Taha from the biography and Taha as recounted by the poet's relatives, whom he has befriended. "It is not meant to be Taha copy-pasted, but rather my perspective of him as a poet and a human being."

Directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi (co-founder of ShiberHur Theatre Company), this play is adapted from American essayist Adina Hoffman’s ‘My Happiness Bears No Relation to Happiness: A Poet’s Life in the Palestinian Century’ (2009). I only know this book because year ago, I raided a learned friend’s bookshelves and came across it. It was only then I knew about celebrated Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali (1931-2011). Even so, I’m not fully schooled in his works.

The monologue by playwright and actor Amer Hlehel with this wonderful voice, cadence and facial expressions, gently told the life story of the Palestinian poet who was born in 1931 Galilee, before the existence of the State of Israel, and when Palestine was under British Mandate, thanks to the meddling by the League of Nations or La Société des Nations in 1947. Taha Muhammad Ali fled to Lebanon’s refugee camps in 1948 (that was Nakba, an event many Palestinians carry in their heart), then returned to Nazareth to a whole new landscape to set up a souvenir shop, learnt classical Arabic literature and learnt English. 50 years of loss, and angst of citizens and average humans who want peace, but are no match for political turmoil.

With our knowledge of the ongoing Arab-Israeli War that has roots no thanks to yet another meddling by the United Nations in November 1947. That, and claims to Jerusalem, have resulted in one tangled mess that is an international political hot potato. In an interview with Joe Gill of the Middle East Eye for Amer Hlehel’s London debut at the Young Vic, the 10 July 2017 article quoted Taha himself,

As Taha said in an interview shortly before his death in 2011: “In my poetry there is no Palestine, no Israel, but in my poetry there is suffering, sadness, longing, feeling, and this together makes the result - Palestine and Israel.”

As one who lives in this part of the world with no vested interest in the affairs of the Middle East, I’ve no right to even comment on it since I’ve not lived through the pain and uncertainty of that century. Zionism recognizes and pushes for a state of Israel, and it is Israel’s national ideology, of which it also includes extending an invitation to all Jews living anywhere else in the world, the right to an Israeli citizenship. The Zionist left of the 70s has taken a back seat, and the Israel I grew up learning about, comprised of the policies of the Zionist right, and to the general public, the definition of Zionism now kinda stinks. BUT when my country can’t even put a definition on its political ideal, I’m not even sure that I’m entitled to empathy towards any side, beyond pointing out that leaning towards the far right in any ideology is a bad bad bad thing. I left the show remembering Taha’s poetry and its very human emotions of loss, displacement, love, life and struggle.

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